A couple of weeks ago I attended an Urban Institute panel on YouthCount!, an Obama administration effort to improve counts of unaccompanied homeless youth. As part of the initiative, the Urban Institute followed nine cities and counties around the country as they experimented with new methods to count young people who are homeless or unstably housed. The sites used a variety of strategies, including hosting events to draw young people in, asking homeless youth to take part in the count, and using partners such as public libraries as survey sites. The federal government’s interest in the issue comes from its recognition that while annual HUD point-in-time counts may generally work for homeless adults, they definitely don’t work for homeless young people, since homeless youth are relatively invisible.
In one sense, this focus on achieving an even semi-accurate count of homeless and nearly homeless young people seems like a distraction, even a stalling tactic. If, as one panelist said, ‘we can’t solve a problem we can’t see,’ then we’re in trouble. Lots of us see homeless and high-risk young people every day, and the resources these ‘officially’ homeless youth command are slight indeed. If we could prove there were even more homeless youth — and we know there are, in numbers far exceeding the most generous government estimates — would more federal and state money materialize? Maybe, but it’s somehow hard to imagine.
On the other hand, I’m thrilled with the attention this issue is getting. In fact, I care about this issue so much that about 10 years ago I talked my higher-ups at Youth Catalytics (then NEN) into letting me pilot a promising counting method I’d learned about from The Upper Room, a tiny agency in New Hampshire that, despite its modest size, had managed to win a grant to help homeless youth succeed in school. The Upper Room’s first task was to find out how many young people in their local school district actually needed help. So the project coordinator, Kimberly Gerrish, went to the principal of the local high school and asked. Out of 2,000 students it seemed that … well, it seemed there were only two. Maybe only one, actually. That’s what he estimated.
Kimberly’s agency was concerned with education, not with homelessness, but that didn’t sound right to her. So she devised a simple, one-page survey, and asked the high school to distribute it to every student in every homeroom, first thing in the morning on an ordinary day in October. The survey didn’t use the word ‘homeless,’ and it didn’t asked students about themselves. It simply asked them to provide the initials of every friend and acquaintance who had left home for any reason and was now living somewhere else temporarily. It also asked for ages of those acquaintances, where they currently lived, and whether they were still enrolled in school.
Kimberly and a small team of honor society students sifted through the surveys, eliminating those that were clearly, or even possibly, naming the same people. What did they find? The true homeless population wasn’t one or two, as the principal conjectured, but closer to 200. In other words, for every 1,000 students Kimberly asked, about 100 different homeless or near-homeless young people were named. Most of these young people had dropped out of school; many were living with friends or girlfriends and boyfriends. A few lived in cars or tents.
Kimberly understood perfectly well that not every one of those 200 young people wanted or needed help finishing school, which was her particular mandate. She knew that not every one of them was even homeless, in the narrow sense of the word. Not all were in desperate circumstances. But she knew that their transience and disconnection from caring adults at least suggested they might need help. Now she just needed to find them and offer it. So she took the very sensible step of putting up flyers all around town, in every place she thought young people on their own would go — laundromats, convenience stores, libraries. The flyers had one simple message: if you need help finishing school, and you’re not living at home anymore, call us. We’ll help you.
Kimberly’s initial findings, from her local NH high school, perfectly predicted what we’d find elsewhere. Every thousand students who filled out a survey named between 100 and 160 unduplicated youth who were homeless or unstably housed.
And so the calls starting coming in, first in a trickle and then in a steady stream. That first year alone, she worked with a dozen young people, including an 18-year-old boy living in his car and an 18-year-old girl kicked out by her foster mother and floating around from couch to couch while trying to hold down a waitress job.
Every teenager who came to her needed a boatload of help to finish school, and Kimberly found herself standing in line at the food stamp office, helping pull together a few necessities for a first apartment, sitting with teens in front of the computer studying for their GED exam, sitting through meetings with teachers and guidance counselors. Who else was going to do all this for these young people? Nobody. There was no homeless/runaway youth agency in their small rural town, or in any surrounding towns. Somebody had to do this work, or else these teens wouldn’t finish school. You’ll have guessed by now that her work all paid off — the teens who came to her did in fact finish school, in whatever way made the most sense for them. She had succeeded, and so had they.
Keep in mind that Kimberly had no particular expertise in youth homelessness, and she didn’t have much money or a single staff member. But she did have common sense and energy, plus an understanding of how to win over a school system. (A key piece of advice? Sweep into school meetings with muffins, coffee and a big smile.)
She had also devised a platform that made all this work possible: her survey project. When every one in the community, including the school, understood that there were a lot of homeless and near-homeless young people, and not just a few, the quibbling could stop and the real work could begin.
We wanted to know if Kimberly’s survey method would work in other places. So, with her permission, we refined her survey and got three additional high schools in New England to administer it to their students. Our agreement with them was that no matter what we found, we wouldn’t expect them to do anything about it. And we wouldn’t talk to the press about whatever we uncovered. (Given that all schools are legally required to identify homeless students on their own, this was a sad comment indeed, but no one working in youth services will be surprised. We were lucky the schools agreed to let us do it at all.)
So what did we discover? That Kimberly’s initial findings, from her local NH high school, perfectly predicted what we’d find elsewhere. Every thousand students who filled out a survey named between 100 and 160 unduplicated youth who were homeless or unstably housed. Most of them were no longer in school. Our study sites were in the suburbs, rural settings and small cities. It’s hard to imagine that the same ratio wouldn’t hold up in large cities.
So this is what we should all be able to agree on:
Most kids who leave home for long periods during high school could use some help. How much help? It varies. Some wouldn’t need any, others would need a lot. But it’s hard to finish high school when you’re couch-surfing. And if you don’t finish school, lots of other things are likely to go wrong.
Most youth who leave home will never be associated with any agency that will count them. Therefore, social service agencies alone cannot produce an accurate count.
Most homeless youth will never sleep on the street in cardboard boxes, so communities will continue to believe that they don’t exist in large numbers. They will be wrong, though.
If you simply accept that there are large numbers of youth who are disconnected from their families, then you can do what Kimberly did, and throw out a lifeline. Those who need it will grab it. As they do, you’ll find out more and more about these youth and their circumstances. Word will spread. More and more will come. You’ll get closer and closer to actually being able to count the neediest youth.Kimberly’s initial findings, from her local NH high school, perfectly predicted what we’d find elsewhere. Every thousand students who filled out a survey named between 100 and 160 unduplicated youth who were homeless or unstably housed.
So it’s time to agree that while we don’t (and never will) have perfect figures, we know enough to do a whole lot more than we’re doing. I love research — I’m a researcher, after all — but let’s not waste any more time claiming we need what we’ll never have, all while ignoring the fact that what we already have is quite a bit.
See findings from our Homeless/Transient Youth Estimation Project here.
~ Melanie Wilson, YC Research Director